Conscious Couture: How to dress to save the environment

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SALT LAKE CITY, Utah (ABC4 News) – When Jessica Cobabe went to India on a humanitarian trip, she was concerned that the children who lived there never saw the stars due to a thick layer of pollution that constantly covered the sky.

For Cobabe, a fashion blogger, this trip marked a turning point. She realized that the way she was shopping and encouraging her audience to shop was affecting people around the world.

“Seeing pollution firsthand, seeing the living conditions that a lot of these people experience, that’s one of the biggest things to me that made me realize that what I buy matters and that people are actually getting affected by our decisions as consumers,” she said. “It might not be here, and we might not see it here, but it’s happening.”

Upon returning home, Cobabe decided to use her blog, Chic and Disheveled, as a platform to educate people about how to shop for clothes in a way that seeks to avoid harming the environment- also known as sustainable fashion.

The fashion industry has a huge impact on the environment. The production of clothing creates waste, water pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions. Another concern is unsafe and unethical labor practices.

That’s why, like Cobabe, many people are making the shift toward sustainable fashion.

What is sustainable fashion?

According to Cobabe, there are many factors that go into what makes a brand sustainable- how the garment is made, how it’s produced, and whether or not the fabric used is biodegradable. Sustainable brands also have good business practices and treat workers in an ethical manner.

“For me, sustainability is all about mindset,” Cobabe said. As a consumer, one of the things that I have the most control over is how I spend my money and where I spend my money.”

She said a part of shopping sustainably is purchasing clothing that is made out of fabric which causes less damage to the environment- materials like organic cotton, bamboo, linen, and materials made out of recycled plastic. Another part is purchasing clothing that will last.

This may mean spending a little more money to buy a shirt made out of quality fabric rather than purchasing a $5 shirt that will last only a few wears.

However, Cobabe said that getting the most wear out of the clothing you currently have is just as important.

“The common misconception is if you want to focus on living a more sustainable life, you have to throw everything away, start fresh, and start just buying sustainable brands,” she said. “Realistically, the most sustainable items are already in your closet.”

Wear what you have, Cobabe said, and then when you do need to replace it, replace it with a sustainable option.

In fact, it is the short lifespan of fast fashion pieces that make this business practice so detrimental to the environment.

Fast Fashion

The term “fast fashion” refers to the quick production of low cost and low-quality clothing, making it possible for the average consumer to keep up with new fashion trends. The idea is that consumers will be financially able to shop for new clothing often, buying and disposing of clothing quickly after it’s no longer on-trend.

This business model, which has been widely adopted by clothing companies, means that clothes quickly pile up in landfills and creates waste.

“We’re taught to over-consume,” says Cobabe. “We’re taught if you can buy it and afford it, buy it. And if you don’t use it, throw it away.”

Sophia Nicholas, Communications Manager at Salt Lake’s Division of Sustainability, says fast fashion can but fun, but there’s a huge environmental impact, especially since most fast-fashion clothing only lasts for about 10 wears.

According to Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles, the average American throws out 81 pounds of clothing every year. To demonstrate the impact of the rise of fast fashion on consumption, shoppers bought sixty percent more clothing in 2014 than they did in 2000 but kept each garment for only half the time.

Buying clothing that will last makes it more likely to be reused rather than ending up in a landfill.

Reuse, reuse, reuse

Cobabe recommended renting special occasion outfits that you plan on wearing only once to prevent it from ending up in a landfill.

That way, she said, “You’re not investing that money and then chucking it.”

She also recommended shopping secondhand, which she said people sometimes are hesitant to do.

“People envision these, and I hate to say this, tree-hugging hippies,” Cobabe said. “They think there’s no style in it and you’re going to look like you’re wearing used clothing, and that couldn’t be further from the truth.”

Rather, Cobabe found that thrifting has given her a chance to develop her own style.

“You really get a chance when you go shopping second hand to refine and define your style,” she said. “Rather than being focused on trends and what everyone else is telling you is in, you really get to start looking for things you find stylish…”

Cobabe said asking yourself a few basic questions before purchasing a product can prevent you from making impulse buys.

“Do I need this? Am I really going to wear it? Where was it made? Who made it? Those are some of the best questions you can ask as a consumer.”

Nicholas said a way in which she reuses clothing is through having clothing swaps with friends.

“It’s free, so it saves you a lot of money, and then you can swap things as you get sick of them or grow out of them,” she said.

In addition, she said washing clothing wears it down, so a way to help clothing last longer is through washing it less frequently.

Consumers also have the option of donating or recycling clothing.

Recycling Clothing

According to Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles, when consumers choose to recycle their clothing, it makes a big difference. Consumers recycle 2 million tons of textiles each year in the United States, which reduces the same amount of greenhouse gasses as removing 1 million cars from highways. This is more effective than recycling yard trimmings, glass, and plastic.

Though 95 percent of clothing can be recycled, only 15 percent is either donated or recycled. The remaining 85 percent ends up in landfills- that’s 26 billion pounds or 310,000 truckloads of clothing.

According to Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles, any household textile that is dry and has no odor can be recycled. Even clothing that is stained or worn can be recycled, and therefore, should not be thrown away.

However, not all recycled or donated clothing ends up being worn again.

According to Nicholas, most recycled clothing is turned into downgraded items such as insulation or rags.

What is the fashion industry’s impact the environment?

From creating waste to polluting water, the fashion industry has a massive impact on the environment.

In many developing countries where clothing is produced, toxic chemicals used in clothing production are dumped into rivers, poisoning fish and creating a harmful environment for people living nearby.

In addition, creating clothing often requires large amounts of water.

According to wildlife.org, it can require up to 2,700 liters of water to produce one cotton t-shirt. World Resources Institute says that this is the amount of water that one person could survive on for 2 and a half years.

Today, the average lifetime of a piece of clothing is three years, so clothing is ending up in landfills faster than in the past.

According to Nicholas, eight percent of the world’s greenhouse gas footprint comes from clothing, shoes, and apparel.

“Eight percent! That’s pretty amazing when you think that transportation is 14 percent,” she said. “So, you can really make an impact by just extending the life of your clothes and shoes for a few years.”

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